Welcome to our sandbox

The human race has become the single dominant force of change on the planet. We’re altering the natural world, entering the Anthropocene. That’s a good thing.

Knee-deep in the blizzard of 1978, when wind-whipped sails of snow tacked across Lake Cayuga and the streets looked like a toboggan run, I was a student. Despite the weather, classes met, and scientists with souls luminous as watch dials were talking about nuclear winter, the likely changes in Earth’s climate in the aftermath of a nuclear war: the sun white cotton in a perishable sky, dust clouds thickening over the Earth, plants forgetting how to green, summer beginning at 20 below zero, and then the seasons failing all living things.

It seemed a possible scenario, since in Washington and Moscow politicians were outdaring one another with playground bravado. This was the first time I’d heard my elders suggesting that we were now capable of unraveling the whole atmosphere shrouding Earth, and I was both wonder-struck and worried.

Only moments before, in geological time, we were speechless shadows on the savanna, foragers and hunters of small game. How had we become such a planetary threat? As the lectures and snow squalls ebbed, we students seemed like small, radiant forms in a vast white madness.

A quarter of a century later, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen (who discovered the hole in the ozone layer and first introduced the idea of nuclear winter) stepped onto the world stage again, arguing that we’ve become such powerful agents of planetary change that we need to rename the geological age in which we live. Elite scientists from many nations agreed, and a distinguished panel at the Geological Society of London (the -official arbiter of the geologic time scale) began weighing the evidence and working to -update the name of our epoch from its rocky designation, Holocene (“recent whole”), to one that recognizes, for the first time, our unparalleled dominion over the whole planet: Anthropocene—the Human Age.

By international agreement, geologists divide Earth’s environmental history into phases, based on ruling empires of rock, ocean and life; it’s similar to how we use “Elizabethan” and other royal dynasties to denote periods of human history. Deep ice cores in the Antarctic tell us of ancient atmospheres, fossil remains reveal ancient oceans and life forms, and more is written in silt and cataloged in stone. Previous periods, like the Jurassic, which we identify with dinosaurs, lasted millions of years, and we sometimes cleave them into smaller units as changing epochs and eras slide into view. Each one adds a thread, however thin, to the tapestry. How wide a stripe will we leave in the fossil record?

People who are recognizably human have walked the Earth for roughly 200,000 years. During those millennia, we survived by continuously adapting to our fickle environment. We braved harsh weather and punishing landscapes, and feared animals much fiercer than we were, bowing to nature, whose spell overwhelmed us, whose magnificence humbled us and around which we anxiously rigged our lives.

After a passage of time too long to fully imagine, and too many impression-mad lives to tally, we began rebelling against the forces of nature. We grew handy, resourceful, flexible, clever, cooperative. We captured fire, chipped tools, hewed spears and needles, coined language and spent it everywhere we roamed. And then we began multiplying at breathtaking speed.

In the year 1000 BC, the entire world population was just one million. By AD 1000 it was 300 million. In 1500, it had grown to 500 million. Since then we’ve started reproducing exponentially. In the eighteenth century, we were still able to count people in millions. The world population has quadrupled since 1870, and today there are seven billion of us. As the biologist E. O. Wilson says, “The pattern of human population growth in the twentieth century was more bacterial than primate.” According to Wilson, the human biomass is now a hundred times greater than that of any other large animal species that has ever existed on Earth. In our cities, 3.2 billion people crowd together, and urban planners predict that by the year 2050 nearly two-thirds of the world’s projected 10 billion people will be city dwellers.

By the end of this decade, the history of planet Earth will be rewritten, textbooks will slip out of date, and teachers will need to unveil a bold, exciting and possibly disturbing new reality. During our brief sojourn on Earth, thanks to exhilarating technologies, fossil fuel use, agriculture and ballooning populations, the human race has become the single dominant force of change on the planet. For one species to radically alter the entire natural world is almost unprecedented in all of Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history.

Humans have always been hopped-up, restless busybodies. During the past 11,700 years, a mere blink of time since the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, we invented the pearls of agriculture, writing and science. We’ve traveled in all directions, followed the long hands of rivers, crossed snow kingdoms, scaled dizzying clefts and gorges, trekked to remote islands and the poles, plunged to ocean depths haunted by fish lit like luminarias and jellies with golden eyes. Under a worship of stars, we trimmed fires and strung lanterns all across the darkness. We framed Oz-like cities, voyaged off our home planet, and golfed on the moon. We dreamed up a wizardry of industrial and medical marvels.

We might not have shuffled the continents, but we’ve erased and redrawn their outlines with cities, agriculture and climate change. We’ve blocked and rerouted rivers, depositing thick sediments of new land. We’ve leveled forests, scraped and paved the earth. We’ve subdued 75 percent of the land surface—preserving some pockets as “wilderness,” denaturing vast tracts for our businesses and homes and homogenizing a third of the world’s ice-free land through farming. We’ve lopped off the tops of mountains to dig craters and quarries for mining. We’ve turned the landscape into another form of architecture—we’ve made the planet our sandbox.

Like supreme beings, we now are present everywhere and in everything. We’ve colonized or left our fingerprints on every inch of the planet, from the ocean sediment to the exosphere, the outermost fringe of atmosphere, where molecules escape into space, junk careens, and satellites orbit. Nearly all of the wonders we identify with modern life emerged in just the past two centuries—and over the past couple of decades, like a giant boulder racing ahead of a landslide, the human adventure has accelerated at an especially mind-bending pace.

Every day, we’re more at the helm, navigating from outer space to the inner terraces of body and brain. We are not the same apes flaking tools on the savanna, toting gemlike embers and stringing a few words together like precious shells. It’s even hard to imagine our mental fantasia from that perspective. Did it feel more spacious or every bit as streamlike?

We’re revising the planet and its life forms so fast and indelibly that the natural world from which we sprang—atoms to single-cells to mammals to Homo sapiens to dominance—is far from the same wellspring our ancestors knew. Today, instead of adapting to the natural world in which we live, we’ve created a human environment in which we’ve embedded the natural world.

Without meaning to, we’ve created some planetary chaos that threatens our well-being. Yet despite the urgency of reining in climate change and devising safer ways to feed, fuel and govern our civilization, I’m enormously hopeful. Our new age, for all its sins, is laced with invention. We’ve tripled our life span, reduced childhood mortality and, for most people, improved the quality of life—from health to daily comforts—to a staggering degree.

After all, if we could travel back to, say, the Iron Age, few of us would go without packing certain essentials: matches, antibiotics, corrective lenses, compass, knife, shoes, vitamins, pencil and paper, toothbrush, fish hooks, metal pot, flashlight with solar batteries, and an array of other inventions that make life safer. We wouldn’t travel light.

Forging a new geological era, we are an altogether different kind of animal from any the planet has ever known, one able to reinvent itself and its world and manage to survive, despite more twists and turns in daily life than any creature has ever had to juggle. We inhabit a denser mental whorl than any of our stout-hearted ancestors. We’re in the midst of a majestic Information Age, but also an ingenious sustainability revolution, a deluxe 3-D revolution in manufacturing, a spine-tingling revolution in thinking about the body, a scary mass extinction of animals, alarming signs of climate change, an uncanny nanotechnology revolution, industrial-strength add-ons to our senses, a biomimicry revolution—among so many other “new normals” that we sling the phrase daily.

We understand ourselves on many more spine-tingling levels: how we’re changing the planet, other creatures and one another. Thanks to revelations in neuroscience, genetics and biology, we’re bringing the life and times of Homo sapiens sapiens into a much clearer focus.

We humans have so much in common that we can’t seem to speak of comfortably: a genetic code, a niche on a small planet in a vast galaxy in an infinite universe; the underrated luxury of being at the top of our food chain; a familiar range of passions and fears; a mysterious, ill-defined evolution from creatures whose thoughts were like a vapor and, before that, bits of chemical and chance so small they pass right through the mind’s sieve without its being able to fully grasp them.

We have in common, despite our extraordinary powers of invention, subtlety and know-how, an ability to bore ourselves that is so horrifying, we devote much of our short lives to activities designed mainly to make us seem more interesting to ourselves. We have in common a world our senses know voluptuously, from one splayed moment to the next: the wind touching one’s chapped lips, a just-forgotten chore, the small, unremarkable acts of mercy and heroism parents and lovers perform each day. We are a collective sort of creature, whose qualities embarrass us when we stumble upon them in ourselves but which we’re glad to epitomize in movie stars, sports figures and politicians—people like Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon, or Thomas Edison spending the last of his days in Florida trying to make rubber from goldenrod. We have in common a fidgeting, blooming, ever-startling universe, whose complex laws we all obey.

We’re each a sac of chemicals, forged in the sun, that can somehow contemplate itself, even if we don’t always know where our pancreas is, and are troubled most days by more mundane matters. When we meet, at parties or on the street, we nonetheless feel like strangers. When we find ourselves alone together in an elevator, it is as if we have been caught at some naughty act—we can’t even bring ourselves to meet each other’s eyes.

It’s time we acknowledged our personality—not just as individuals but as a species. I once knew a woman who checked into a hotel and, upon entering her room, decided she didn’t like the design of the small ornamental finials topping the lamps. She phoned the desk and insisted that they be changed. That may seem like radical pickiness, but our personality as a species includes wide streaks of tinkering and meddling. It’s an important part of our character; we’re unable to leave anything alone. Let’s fess up to being the interfering creatures we are, indefatigably restless, easily bored and fond of turning everything into amusement, fashion or toys.

We anthrops can be lumbering, clumsy and immature. We’re also easily distracted, sloppy as a hound dog’s kiss, and we hate picking up after ourselves. Without really meaning to, we have nearly emptied the world’s pantry, left all the taps running, torn the furniture, strewn our old toys where they’re becoming a menace, polluted and spilled and generally messed up our planetary home.

I doubt any one fix will do. We need systemic policy changes that begin at the government level, renewable energy replacing fossil fuels, widespread green building practices, grassroots community and nationwide projects, and individuals doing whatever they can, from composting and recycling to walking to work instead of driving.

Humans are relentless problem solvers who relish big adventures, and climate change is attracting a wealth of clever minds and unorthodox ideas as we revisit the art of adapting to the environment—a skill that served our ancestors well for millennia, while they fanned out to populate the Earth from equator to ice.

We can survive our rude infancy and grow into responsible, caring adults—without losing our innocence, playfulness or sense of wonder. But first we need to see ourselves from different angles, in many mirrors, as a very young species, both blessed and cursed by our -prowess. Instead of ignoring or plundering nature, we need to refine our natural place in it.

Nature is still our mother, but she’s grown older and less independent. We’ve grown more self-reliant, and as a result we’re beginning to redefine our relationship to her. We still need and cling to her, still find refuge in her flowing skirts, and food at her table.

We may not worship Mother Nature, but we love and respect her, are fascinated by her secrets, worry about alienating her, fear her harshest moods, cannot survive without her. As we’re becoming acutely aware of just how vulnerable she truly is, we’re beginning to see her limits as well as her bounty, and we’re trying to grow into the role of loving caregivers.

I’m all for renaming our era the Anthropocene—a legitimate golden spike based on the fossil record—because it highlights the enormity of our impact on the world. We are dream-smiths and wonder workers. What a marvel we’ve become, a species with planetwide powers and breathtaking gifts. That’s a feat to recognize and celebrate. It should fill us with pride and astonishment.

The name also tells us we are acting on a long, long geological scale. I hope that awareness prompts us to think carefully about our history, our future, the fleeting time we spend on Earth, what we may leave in trust to our children (a full pantry, fresh drinking water, clean air), and how we wish to be remembered.

We’re at a great turning, our own momentous fork in the road, behind us eons of geological history, ahead a mist-laden future, and all around us the wonders and uncertainties of the Human Age.

These days, startling though the thought is, we control our own legacy. We’re not passive, we’re not helpless. We’re earth movers. We can become Earth restorers and Earth guardians. We still have time and talent, and we have a great many choices. Our mistakes are legion, but our imagination is immeasurable. 

“We are entwined with the rest of nature”

DianeAckerman

Diane Ackerman, author of The Human Age, on anxiety, hope, and the future of mankind.

The Anthropocene is usually met with anxiety. Do you share the worries many people have when we talk about a new geological era in which humanity’s impact on the Earth has become so prominent?

“Yes, indeed. For 25 years, I traveled the world writing about endangered animals, and I saw reef death in the Caribbean, penguin colony changes in the Antarctic, plastics floating in the South Pacific, the burning of the Amazon… There’s no question: climate change is real and urgent. We’ve been blindly geoengineering for 200 years—and we made a mess of things.”

So how can you be so positive in your book?

“The mess we made was accidentally. That part is vitally important. We’ve already proven that we can change the world. Think what we could do on purpose this time, thinking globally, as one species. We have the talent, tenacity and technology to slow things down and help the most vulnerable among us adapt. We’re not helpless. We’re not powerless. Human beings are imaginative, strong-willed problem solvers. We can’t afford to wallow in denial, despair or depression about our plight. Instead of mourning for a doomed Mother Earth and the end of humanity, we need to think positively, roll up our sleeves and get busy.”

What are some .of the best ideas and actions that make you so hopeful?

“You know, I read of superb projects every week. Like there’s a mother of three in Kenya who has organized children and adolescents to plant thousands of trees, whose leaves are edible and provide nutrition, whose roots stabilize the soil, whose seeds are pressed for cooking oil and used in cosmetics. There’s a wonderful adaptation project in Bangladesh, home to the world’s largest floodplain, where a young architect has designed a fleet of floating schools, health clinics, libraries, and floating farms, also providing solar electricity and many other services for over tens of thousands of people during flood season. There’s a soccer ball for poor areas in poor countries that has a pendulum inside and creates and stores kinetic energy; if you play with the soccer ball for half an hour, it produces three hours of light. Or take solar-cell backpacks that students in rural areas wear while walking to school, storing enough energy to light lamps at night. A hospital in Mexico City recently unveiled a new facade of tall gray lattices that look elegant and modern, but aren’t just decorative. They silently purify the air, neutralizing the emissions of up to 1,000 cars a day.”

This is all in faraway places.

“You can find similar initiatives everywhere, including the Netherlands. I love the idea that’s now being explored in the Netherlands of turning highways into solar panels. Another great Dutch project is the urban algae farm, a prototype for use in cities everywhere, that can cling to the undersides of highway overpasses. The algae thrives on all the carbon dioxide belched by the traffic below and provides food and biofuel while filtering CO2 from the air.”

What was it about your fascination with the idea of the Anthropocene that made you write this book?

“Living in the Anthropocene means that, as a species, we finally realize the enormity of our impact and how entwined we are with the rest of nature. I hope it will inspire us to act fast and wisely to ensure a livable world for all humans and other species. Though not its intention, the name change will also hold up a mirror that reflects the unprecedented and altogether remarkable beings we’ve become: naked apes capable of perturbing a whole planet and vastly enhancing their natural senses and powers. The book is about how our relationship with every facet of nature has changed in just the past few decades. At every level, our unique bond with nature has taken new directions.

I began writing this book because I was puzzled by nagging questions about the future. After all my research and writing, I can now say I’m very optimistic about our future as a species. I’m very hopeful, because there’s a lot we can do.” | Marco Visscher

Solution News Source

Welcome to our sandbox

The human race has become the single dominant force of change on the planet. We’re altering the natural world, entering the Anthropocene. That’s a good thing.

Knee-deep in the blizzard of 1978, when wind-whipped sails of snow tacked across Lake Cayuga and the streets looked like a toboggan run, I was a student. Despite the weather, classes met, and scientists with souls luminous as watch dials were talking about nuclear winter, the likely changes in Earth’s climate in the aftermath of a nuclear war: the sun white cotton in a perishable sky, dust clouds thickening over the Earth, plants forgetting how to green, summer beginning at 20 below zero, and then the seasons failing all living things.

It seemed a possible scenario, since in Washington and Moscow politicians were outdaring one another with playground bravado. This was the first time I’d heard my elders suggesting that we were now capable of unraveling the whole atmosphere shrouding Earth, and I was both wonder-struck and worried.

Only moments before, in geological time, we were speechless shadows on the savanna, foragers and hunters of small game. How had we become such a planetary threat? As the lectures and snow squalls ebbed, we students seemed like small, radiant forms in a vast white madness.

A quarter of a century later, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen (who discovered the hole in the ozone layer and first introduced the idea of nuclear winter) stepped onto the world stage again, arguing that we’ve become such powerful agents of planetary change that we need to rename the geological age in which we live. Elite scientists from many nations agreed, and a distinguished panel at the Geological Society of London (the -official arbiter of the geologic time scale) began weighing the evidence and working to -update the name of our epoch from its rocky designation, Holocene (“recent whole”), to one that recognizes, for the first time, our unparalleled dominion over the whole planet: Anthropocene—the Human Age.

By international agreement, geologists divide Earth’s environmental history into phases, based on ruling empires of rock, ocean and life; it’s similar to how we use “Elizabethan” and other royal dynasties to denote periods of human history. Deep ice cores in the Antarctic tell us of ancient atmospheres, fossil remains reveal ancient oceans and life forms, and more is written in silt and cataloged in stone. Previous periods, like the Jurassic, which we identify with dinosaurs, lasted millions of years, and we sometimes cleave them into smaller units as changing epochs and eras slide into view. Each one adds a thread, however thin, to the tapestry. How wide a stripe will we leave in the fossil record?

People who are recognizably human have walked the Earth for roughly 200,000 years. During those millennia, we survived by continuously adapting to our fickle environment. We braved harsh weather and punishing landscapes, and feared animals much fiercer than we were, bowing to nature, whose spell overwhelmed us, whose magnificence humbled us and around which we anxiously rigged our lives.

After a passage of time too long to fully imagine, and too many impression-mad lives to tally, we began rebelling against the forces of nature. We grew handy, resourceful, flexible, clever, cooperative. We captured fire, chipped tools, hewed spears and needles, coined language and spent it everywhere we roamed. And then we began multiplying at breathtaking speed.

In the year 1000 BC, the entire world population was just one million. By AD 1000 it was 300 million. In 1500, it had grown to 500 million. Since then we’ve started reproducing exponentially. In the eighteenth century, we were still able to count people in millions. The world population has quadrupled since 1870, and today there are seven billion of us. As the biologist E. O. Wilson says, “The pattern of human population growth in the twentieth century was more bacterial than primate.” According to Wilson, the human biomass is now a hundred times greater than that of any other large animal species that has ever existed on Earth. In our cities, 3.2 billion people crowd together, and urban planners predict that by the year 2050 nearly two-thirds of the world’s projected 10 billion people will be city dwellers.

By the end of this decade, the history of planet Earth will be rewritten, textbooks will slip out of date, and teachers will need to unveil a bold, exciting and possibly disturbing new reality. During our brief sojourn on Earth, thanks to exhilarating technologies, fossil fuel use, agriculture and ballooning populations, the human race has become the single dominant force of change on the planet. For one species to radically alter the entire natural world is almost unprecedented in all of Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history.

Humans have always been hopped-up, restless busybodies. During the past 11,700 years, a mere blink of time since the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, we invented the pearls of agriculture, writing and science. We’ve traveled in all directions, followed the long hands of rivers, crossed snow kingdoms, scaled dizzying clefts and gorges, trekked to remote islands and the poles, plunged to ocean depths haunted by fish lit like luminarias and jellies with golden eyes. Under a worship of stars, we trimmed fires and strung lanterns all across the darkness. We framed Oz-like cities, voyaged off our home planet, and golfed on the moon. We dreamed up a wizardry of industrial and medical marvels.

We might not have shuffled the continents, but we’ve erased and redrawn their outlines with cities, agriculture and climate change. We’ve blocked and rerouted rivers, depositing thick sediments of new land. We’ve leveled forests, scraped and paved the earth. We’ve subdued 75 percent of the land surface—preserving some pockets as “wilderness,” denaturing vast tracts for our businesses and homes and homogenizing a third of the world’s ice-free land through farming. We’ve lopped off the tops of mountains to dig craters and quarries for mining. We’ve turned the landscape into another form of architecture—we’ve made the planet our sandbox.

Like supreme beings, we now are present everywhere and in everything. We’ve colonized or left our fingerprints on every inch of the planet, from the ocean sediment to the exosphere, the outermost fringe of atmosphere, where molecules escape into space, junk careens, and satellites orbit. Nearly all of the wonders we identify with modern life emerged in just the past two centuries—and over the past couple of decades, like a giant boulder racing ahead of a landslide, the human adventure has accelerated at an especially mind-bending pace.

Every day, we’re more at the helm, navigating from outer space to the inner terraces of body and brain. We are not the same apes flaking tools on the savanna, toting gemlike embers and stringing a few words together like precious shells. It’s even hard to imagine our mental fantasia from that perspective. Did it feel more spacious or every bit as streamlike?

We’re revising the planet and its life forms so fast and indelibly that the natural world from which we sprang—atoms to single-cells to mammals to Homo sapiens to dominance—is far from the same wellspring our ancestors knew. Today, instead of adapting to the natural world in which we live, we’ve created a human environment in which we’ve embedded the natural world.

Without meaning to, we’ve created some planetary chaos that threatens our well-being. Yet despite the urgency of reining in climate change and devising safer ways to feed, fuel and govern our civilization, I’m enormously hopeful. Our new age, for all its sins, is laced with invention. We’ve tripled our life span, reduced childhood mortality and, for most people, improved the quality of life—from health to daily comforts—to a staggering degree.

After all, if we could travel back to, say, the Iron Age, few of us would go without packing certain essentials: matches, antibiotics, corrective lenses, compass, knife, shoes, vitamins, pencil and paper, toothbrush, fish hooks, metal pot, flashlight with solar batteries, and an array of other inventions that make life safer. We wouldn’t travel light.

Forging a new geological era, we are an altogether different kind of animal from any the planet has ever known, one able to reinvent itself and its world and manage to survive, despite more twists and turns in daily life than any creature has ever had to juggle. We inhabit a denser mental whorl than any of our stout-hearted ancestors. We’re in the midst of a majestic Information Age, but also an ingenious sustainability revolution, a deluxe 3-D revolution in manufacturing, a spine-tingling revolution in thinking about the body, a scary mass extinction of animals, alarming signs of climate change, an uncanny nanotechnology revolution, industrial-strength add-ons to our senses, a biomimicry revolution—among so many other “new normals” that we sling the phrase daily.

We understand ourselves on many more spine-tingling levels: how we’re changing the planet, other creatures and one another. Thanks to revelations in neuroscience, genetics and biology, we’re bringing the life and times of Homo sapiens sapiens into a much clearer focus.

We humans have so much in common that we can’t seem to speak of comfortably: a genetic code, a niche on a small planet in a vast galaxy in an infinite universe; the underrated luxury of being at the top of our food chain; a familiar range of passions and fears; a mysterious, ill-defined evolution from creatures whose thoughts were like a vapor and, before that, bits of chemical and chance so small they pass right through the mind’s sieve without its being able to fully grasp them.

We have in common, despite our extraordinary powers of invention, subtlety and know-how, an ability to bore ourselves that is so horrifying, we devote much of our short lives to activities designed mainly to make us seem more interesting to ourselves. We have in common a world our senses know voluptuously, from one splayed moment to the next: the wind touching one’s chapped lips, a just-forgotten chore, the small, unremarkable acts of mercy and heroism parents and lovers perform each day. We are a collective sort of creature, whose qualities embarrass us when we stumble upon them in ourselves but which we’re glad to epitomize in movie stars, sports figures and politicians—people like Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon, or Thomas Edison spending the last of his days in Florida trying to make rubber from goldenrod. We have in common a fidgeting, blooming, ever-startling universe, whose complex laws we all obey.

We’re each a sac of chemicals, forged in the sun, that can somehow contemplate itself, even if we don’t always know where our pancreas is, and are troubled most days by more mundane matters. When we meet, at parties or on the street, we nonetheless feel like strangers. When we find ourselves alone together in an elevator, it is as if we have been caught at some naughty act—we can’t even bring ourselves to meet each other’s eyes.

It’s time we acknowledged our personality—not just as individuals but as a species. I once knew a woman who checked into a hotel and, upon entering her room, decided she didn’t like the design of the small ornamental finials topping the lamps. She phoned the desk and insisted that they be changed. That may seem like radical pickiness, but our personality as a species includes wide streaks of tinkering and meddling. It’s an important part of our character; we’re unable to leave anything alone. Let’s fess up to being the interfering creatures we are, indefatigably restless, easily bored and fond of turning everything into amusement, fashion or toys.

We anthrops can be lumbering, clumsy and immature. We’re also easily distracted, sloppy as a hound dog’s kiss, and we hate picking up after ourselves. Without really meaning to, we have nearly emptied the world’s pantry, left all the taps running, torn the furniture, strewn our old toys where they’re becoming a menace, polluted and spilled and generally messed up our planetary home.

I doubt any one fix will do. We need systemic policy changes that begin at the government level, renewable energy replacing fossil fuels, widespread green building practices, grassroots community and nationwide projects, and individuals doing whatever they can, from composting and recycling to walking to work instead of driving.

Humans are relentless problem solvers who relish big adventures, and climate change is attracting a wealth of clever minds and unorthodox ideas as we revisit the art of adapting to the environment—a skill that served our ancestors well for millennia, while they fanned out to populate the Earth from equator to ice.

We can survive our rude infancy and grow into responsible, caring adults—without losing our innocence, playfulness or sense of wonder. But first we need to see ourselves from different angles, in many mirrors, as a very young species, both blessed and cursed by our -prowess. Instead of ignoring or plundering nature, we need to refine our natural place in it.

Nature is still our mother, but she’s grown older and less independent. We’ve grown more self-reliant, and as a result we’re beginning to redefine our relationship to her. We still need and cling to her, still find refuge in her flowing skirts, and food at her table.

We may not worship Mother Nature, but we love and respect her, are fascinated by her secrets, worry about alienating her, fear her harshest moods, cannot survive without her. As we’re becoming acutely aware of just how vulnerable she truly is, we’re beginning to see her limits as well as her bounty, and we’re trying to grow into the role of loving caregivers.

I’m all for renaming our era the Anthropocene—a legitimate golden spike based on the fossil record—because it highlights the enormity of our impact on the world. We are dream-smiths and wonder workers. What a marvel we’ve become, a species with planetwide powers and breathtaking gifts. That’s a feat to recognize and celebrate. It should fill us with pride and astonishment.

The name also tells us we are acting on a long, long geological scale. I hope that awareness prompts us to think carefully about our history, our future, the fleeting time we spend on Earth, what we may leave in trust to our children (a full pantry, fresh drinking water, clean air), and how we wish to be remembered.

We’re at a great turning, our own momentous fork in the road, behind us eons of geological history, ahead a mist-laden future, and all around us the wonders and uncertainties of the Human Age.

These days, startling though the thought is, we control our own legacy. We’re not passive, we’re not helpless. We’re earth movers. We can become Earth restorers and Earth guardians. We still have time and talent, and we have a great many choices. Our mistakes are legion, but our imagination is immeasurable. 

“We are entwined with the rest of nature”

DianeAckerman

Diane Ackerman, author of The Human Age, on anxiety, hope, and the future of mankind.

The Anthropocene is usually met with anxiety. Do you share the worries many people have when we talk about a new geological era in which humanity’s impact on the Earth has become so prominent?

“Yes, indeed. For 25 years, I traveled the world writing about endangered animals, and I saw reef death in the Caribbean, penguin colony changes in the Antarctic, plastics floating in the South Pacific, the burning of the Amazon… There’s no question: climate change is real and urgent. We’ve been blindly geoengineering for 200 years—and we made a mess of things.”

So how can you be so positive in your book?

“The mess we made was accidentally. That part is vitally important. We’ve already proven that we can change the world. Think what we could do on purpose this time, thinking globally, as one species. We have the talent, tenacity and technology to slow things down and help the most vulnerable among us adapt. We’re not helpless. We’re not powerless. Human beings are imaginative, strong-willed problem solvers. We can’t afford to wallow in denial, despair or depression about our plight. Instead of mourning for a doomed Mother Earth and the end of humanity, we need to think positively, roll up our sleeves and get busy.”

What are some .of the best ideas and actions that make you so hopeful?

“You know, I read of superb projects every week. Like there’s a mother of three in Kenya who has organized children and adolescents to plant thousands of trees, whose leaves are edible and provide nutrition, whose roots stabilize the soil, whose seeds are pressed for cooking oil and used in cosmetics. There’s a wonderful adaptation project in Bangladesh, home to the world’s largest floodplain, where a young architect has designed a fleet of floating schools, health clinics, libraries, and floating farms, also providing solar electricity and many other services for over tens of thousands of people during flood season. There’s a soccer ball for poor areas in poor countries that has a pendulum inside and creates and stores kinetic energy; if you play with the soccer ball for half an hour, it produces three hours of light. Or take solar-cell backpacks that students in rural areas wear while walking to school, storing enough energy to light lamps at night. A hospital in Mexico City recently unveiled a new facade of tall gray lattices that look elegant and modern, but aren’t just decorative. They silently purify the air, neutralizing the emissions of up to 1,000 cars a day.”

This is all in faraway places.

“You can find similar initiatives everywhere, including the Netherlands. I love the idea that’s now being explored in the Netherlands of turning highways into solar panels. Another great Dutch project is the urban algae farm, a prototype for use in cities everywhere, that can cling to the undersides of highway overpasses. The algae thrives on all the carbon dioxide belched by the traffic below and provides food and biofuel while filtering CO2 from the air.”

What was it about your fascination with the idea of the Anthropocene that made you write this book?

“Living in the Anthropocene means that, as a species, we finally realize the enormity of our impact and how entwined we are with the rest of nature. I hope it will inspire us to act fast and wisely to ensure a livable world for all humans and other species. Though not its intention, the name change will also hold up a mirror that reflects the unprecedented and altogether remarkable beings we’ve become: naked apes capable of perturbing a whole planet and vastly enhancing their natural senses and powers. The book is about how our relationship with every facet of nature has changed in just the past few decades. At every level, our unique bond with nature has taken new directions.

I began writing this book because I was puzzled by nagging questions about the future. After all my research and writing, I can now say I’m very optimistic about our future as a species. I’m very hopeful, because there’s a lot we can do.” | Marco Visscher

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